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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Perhaps Another Forgotten Frankish Innovation

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Terrace houses, also known as row houses or sometimes townhouses, are near-identical dwellings built in rows adjacent to a street, sharing their side walls and generally occupying elongated plots of land extending back from the street. This type of housing appears to have originated in Europe in the sixteenth century, in many cases when former village houses, which were often flimsy constructions, required renewal. The measurements of these new houses were dictated by the pre-existing medieval layout of elongated plots or tofts adjacent to a street. With the industrial revolution, row houses gained favour as an easy form of land division that facilitated the speedy construction of cheap housing. Another advantage of this was that it enabled the construction of a large number of houses, all with immediate access to the street, into a comparably small area. It was so successful in times of high population growth, and so effective in communities where there were large numbers of low-income residents, that it spread throughout much of the new world and is abundantly found in the United States, Canada and Australia.

Many of the streets in the neighbourhoods I grew up in included terrace houses. These mostly appeared in the wake of the great Australian gold rush of 1851 when the population of Melbourne skyrocketed. They remained popular up to the depression years of the early 1890s. These houses were of one or two storeys, and were identical or at least very similar to one another, and what little individuality they achieved was through their tiny front gardens, when these existed, and more particularly through slight variations in their most attractive feature; the Victorian cast iron lacework that decorated their fences and verandas. By the 1950's and 60's when they were a noticeable part of my childhood scene, they were often run down and occupied by less affluent homeowners who could not afford the more popular detached brick and timber bungalows of the newer post-war suburbs. Many were torn down in a process of slum removal, until an awareness of their beauty and of their value as precious reminders of the past resulted in whole streets undergoing a process of gentrification, similar to the rehabilitation of such buildings in other countries.

Twelfth century Frankish village of el-Kurum near Jerusalem

In the short-lived wave of Frankish rural settlement that took place in the centre of the kingdom of Jerusalem between the 1140's and 1180's the Franks introduced the European medieval street-village plan, and as with the contemporary villages in the West they divided the land among the settlers in approximately equal portions. Each settler received a plot adjacent to the street on which to construct a house and beyond the house a field, the same width as the house but extending far back, which was intended for the growing of crops and the raising of livestock. The plot for the house was known by the term 'toft' and the field beyond as the 'croft'. The medieval landowners were precise in formalising both the obligations of peasants and the possessions granted to them, and these are preserved in surviving documents that detail the setting up of villages. In the West where feudalism was more restrictive and peasants were of serf status, obligations were often severe and with regard to property this is illustrated in the witticism: "The croft is a piece of land surrounded by regulations". In the Latin East the peasants were free settlers and conditions were perhaps more relaxed. Nonetheless, we find a clear outline of what was granted, and in terms of landed property this was a plot measuring two carrucae (a measure of ploughland*) including both the toft and the croft.

All this has been much discussed. What has been less noticed is that the toft, as introduced in the Latin East became, perhaps for the first time, entirely occupied by the house rather than, as in contemporary Europe, the house being built within it, and the houses were constructed, not as individual units as in the West, but with shared walls, both the side walls and the walls at the front and back of the plot, the latter being shared with at least one and often several other houses. Unlike their contemporaries in street villages in the West, but similar to the terrace houses of a later era, they were multi-unit constructions set up in a single effort, and as such they throw some light on the manner in which new villages in the Latin East were established and constructed, like the latter-day terrace housing, in a communal effort and in a short span of time. Perhaps then, when we consider what possible contributions the crusader period may have made to subsequent developments in Europe and elsewhere, we can add to the brief list the concept of terrace housing.

* For a discussion of this measure, see Joshua Prawer, Crusader Institutions, Oxford, 1980, p. 121, n. 67 and Ronnie Ellenblum, Frankish Rural Settlement in the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, Cambridge, 1998, pp. 98-99.

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